A Crisis of Courage
John Peter Altgeld, governor of Illinois from 1892 to 1896, once said, "No man's ambition has a right to stand in the way of performing a simple act of justice." Governor Altgeld was true to his words. He sacrificed his political career by pardoning the labor leaders who were wrongly convicted of the Haymarket Bombing.
Politicians today are too self-interested to protect the integrity of our democracy. We have waited far too long for substantive ethical regulations, robust campaign finance reforms, or even redistricting plans that give voters actual options.
All of this is indicative of a political culture lacking courage.
We are the next generation of leaders. Will we be true to the principles of John Peter Altgeld or will we continue to pollute our political process with mediocrity?
Our University is dedicated to the principle of shared governance. Faculty and students take part in the hiring of high ranking administrators and the crafting of University policy. As Student Senate President, I've had the privilege of serving on numerous campus advisory committees. I have noticed that very few students are willing to speak up and criticize the administration.
Some students fear they will "get in trouble" for criticizing the administration, which is unfortunate, untrue, and something the University should fervently deny. Others fear that heated disagreement with administrators will cost them a valuable recommendation letters, so they shamefully sell out their constituency.
For student input to mean anything at all, when we are called upon we must be bold and candid.
Students across campus can not sit back and hope they will be asked to weigh in. The overwhelming majority of faculty members and administrators enjoy students and value their opinions. In some cases students need to stand up to hostile and aggressive individuals who seek to silence student input.
Currently, one student-loathing zealot sits with me on the Senate Committee on Student Discipline. He recently said he sees no value in having students serve on our committee. This is a committee that crafts discipline procedures and hears student appeals prior to their dismissal. We must be vigilant in asserting the importance of having our voices heard.
Some administrators also try to insulate themselves from dissent. Former Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Patricia Askew was so afraid of criticism that she staffed various advisory committees with Turner Fellows, students employed by her office. It doesn't take an independent advisory committee to tell this is a clear conflict of interest.
We have made some progress in just the last year. Chancellor Herman has created a panel of students he is meeting with on a monthly basis. Our next Provost told me she intended to actively reach out to students by meeting regularly with groups of students. I believe the interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs has ended the policy of including student employees on his advisory committees.
Today I am proud to be writing for the Daily Illini because of the bold decision made by editor in chief Acton Gorton last week to run cartoons few other papers in the nation would run. College newspapers have a great obligation to present extreme perspectives so they can be rigorously scrutinized in academic communities.
Some have suggested that Mr. Gorton should lose his job. If he is fired, this will be my last column. This is a matter of principle, and his actions do not warrant his termination. Whether or not you agree with Mr. Gorton's decision, it is hard to deny that his actions took courage.
As you walk through the Quad today, pause for just a moment in front of Altgeld Hall. Measure your own will by reflecting on Governor Altgeld's legacy. Remember the words of Justice Earl Warren, "Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile I caught hell for." Ask yourself, what are you willing to catch hell for?
Published in the Daily Illini on February 13, 2006.